NIGHTBRINGER | The Arthurian Encyclopedia


Drust, Drustan of Lyonesse, Drustanus, Drystan mab Tallwch, Thisterum, Thistronn, Thristrum, Tistram, Tristano, Tristanos, Tristanz, Tristem, Tristen, Tristenz, Tristeram, Tristram, Tristran, Tristrant, Tristrem, Tristum, Tryschchane, Trystan

Legendary nephew of King Mark of Cornwall and lover of Mark’s wife, Isolde. His life is defined by the tragedy of the love triangle, which eventually caused the lovers’ deaths. Though his legend likely originated outside the Arthurian saga, his story was soon grafted onto the Arthurian cycle, and he is often given as a Knight of the Round Table.

We have two possible origins of his name. A sixth century stone in Cornwall, called Tristan Stone, marks the grave of a certain Drustanus, son of Cunomorous. In Wrmonoc’s Life of St. Paul Aurelian, Cunomorous is identified with King Mark of Cornwall. Nothing else is stated on the tombstone, and if this Drustanus is truly the origin of Tristan, then it is unknown how much of the Tristan story may be related to Drustanus’s actual life. Certainly, the transference of Mark from Tristan’s father to his uncle represents a major variation from fact. It is interesting to note, however, that in a Welsh Triad (in which Tristan stops Arthur from stealing one of Mark’s swine), Drystan is called the son of March, a variation that occurs nowhere else.

The second possible historical origin concerns a certain Drust, son of King Talorc of the Picts, who ruled in Scotland in the late eighth century. In early Welsh Arthurian texts, Tristan is known as Drystan, son of Tallwch. “Drust” appears in a tenth-century (non-Arthurian) Irish tale called The Wooing of Emer, in which Drust’s adventures at the court of the king of the Hebrides parallel Tristan’s deeds in Ireland in the early Tristan tales.

Whether we are to find Tristan’s origins in Drust or Drustanus, neither the Cornish stone nor the early Welsh tales mention the tragic love affair which defines Tristan’s life in his saga. This theme may originate in the ninth century Irish tale of Diarmaid and Grainne. Diarmaid, the nephew of the Irish cheif Finn, falls in love with Grainne, Finn’s wife, due to the effects of a spell. Diarmaid and Grainne flee Finn’s court and soon become lovers. Whether this story had a direct influence on the Tristan legend, or whether they both sprang from a common source, is uncertain.

The Tristan legend shows its development throughout Britain and Brittany, becoming a mélange of themes found in Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Arabian, and even Oriental folklore. Sometime during the early twelfth century, it appears that a French writer produced an archetypal verse Tristan romance that has since been lost. This Tristan prototype became the basis for the French verse Tristans of Thomas of England and Béroul, and the Middle High German Tristrant of Eilhart von Oberge, all of which were written in the late twelfth or very early thirteenth century. Chrétien de Troyes apparently also produced a Tristan tale which no longer exist. The early collection of Tristan tales can be divided into two branches: the realistic, courtly version written by Thomas and followed by Gottfried von Strassburg, the Norse Tristrams Saga Ok Ísöndar, and the Middle-English Sir Tristrem, and the violent supernatural version represented by Béroul and Eilhart von Oberge. Though stylish differences separate each of these tales, the text itself follows a relatively consistent story:

Tristan was born to King Rivalin Canelengres or Rouland of Parmenie and to Blancheflor, the sister of King Mark. His mother died giving birth to him, and his father died in his infancy or youth. He was raised by Rual, his father’s steward, but was kidnapped by merchants as a child. He eventually made his way to Cornwall, where he dazzled King Mark’s court with his skill at hunting and music. Rual, who had been searching for Tristan since his abduction, came to Mark’s court and was joyously reunited with his ward. Mark (presented in the early tales as a noble king) learned that Tristan was his nephew.

Mark was bound to pay an annual tribute to a giant named Morholt from Ireland. Tristan offered to duel Morholt as Mark’s champion, and Mark reluctantly agreed. Tristan killed Morholt, leaving a piece of his sword in Morholt’s skull. Having received a poisoned wound himself, Tristan fell ill and eventually departed Cornwall to seek a cure. Arriving in Ireland, he called himself “Tantrist” to disguise his identity as Morholt’s killer. Isolde, the daughter of the king of Ireland, cured him. In return, Tristan killed a dragon that had been plaguing the king. Isolde soon discovered Tristan’s true identity when the piece of the sword from Morholt’s skull was matched with the broken segment on Tristan’s sword. The king spared Tristan’s life and Tristan returned to Cornwall.

Some time later, Mark was engaged to Isolde, and Tristan went to Ireland to escort her to Cornwall. On the return voyage, they accidentally drank a love potion intended for Mark and Isolde and fell hopelessly in love. Mark suspected the affair, having been informed by various vassals, but he gave them ever benefit of the doubt. Though Tristan and Isolde were, at various times, tried, exiled, or sentenced to death, they always managed to convince Mark of their innocence and return to his favor. Finally, however, Mark banished Tristan from court.

Tristan went to Brittany, where he assisted the king or duke against an attacker. Tristan then married Isolde of the White Hands (Iseult), daughter of the king. Remembering his true lover on his wedding night, he declined to consummate his marriage.

Tristan was evenutally mortally wounded by a poisoned spear (either while assisting Tristan the Dwarf reclaim his kingdom or while helping his brother-in-law, Kahedins, sleep with a married woman). He sent for Mark’s wife to heal his wound, telling the ship’s captain to fly white sails on the return trip if Isolde was aboard, and to fly black sails if she was not. When the ship returned, Tristan asked Isolde of the White Hands the color of the sails. Jealous of his love for the other Isolde, she told him they were black when in fact they were white.

Tristan died of sorrow and Isolde, finding her lover dead, perished on top of his body. They were buried side by side. A vine grew from Tristan’s grave and a rose sprung from Isolde’s. The plants intertwined, symbolizing the eternal love of Tristan and Isolde.

Sprinkled between the early tales are a collection of lays that describe brief encounters between Tristan and Isolde, often with Tristan in disguise, which include,

  • Chevrefueil | Marie de France
    Tristan and Isolde meet in secret under a tree, where a vision of an intertwined honeysuckle and hazel parallels their own love.
  • La Folie Tristan de Berne and La Folie Tristan d’Oxford
    An exiled Tristan visits Mark’s court in the guise of a fool to see Isolde.
  • Tristan als Mönch
    Tristan switches identities with a dead knight and, disguised as a monk, attends his own funeral and meets with Isolde.

Arthurian elements are slim in these early tales; in the branch of Thomas of England, in fact, his story is set a generation after Arthur’s reign. These early romances were eclipsed in the second quarter of the thirteenth century by the French Prose Tristan, which sought to fully integrate the Tristan legend with the Arthurian cycle. Tristan formed the basis of most later Tristan romances, including Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.

Tristan was born in an unhappy hour – his father, King Meliodas of Lyonesse, had been kidnapped by an amourous enchantress and his mother, Elizabeth (or Elyabel), giving birth while out searching for her husband, died of exposure. When Tristan was a child, his stepmother tried to poison him so that her own sons would inherit Lyonesse; when she was caught, Tristan showed a forgiving and compassionate nature by pleading for her life. Meliodas granted his request, but, apparently a bit annoyed with his son, sent the boy into France for seven years under the tutorship of Gouvernail, who later became Tristan’s loyal and competent squire.

It was probably during this period that Tristan attracted the affection of King Faramon’s daughter, Belide, who gave him a brachet and later died for love. And there was Tristan more than seven years. And then when he well could speak the language, and had learned all that he might learn in that country, then he came home to his father, King Meliodas again. And so Tristan learned to be an harper passing all other, that there was non such called in no country, and so on harping and on instruments of music he applied him in youth for to learn.

And after, as he grew in might and strength, he laboured ever in hunting and in hawking, so that never gentleman more. […] And […] he began good measures of blowing of beasts of venery, and beasts of chase, and all manner of vermin, and all these terms we have yet of hawking and hunting. And therefore the book of venery, of hawking, and hunting, is called the book of Sir Tristram.

All this in addition to becoming the only fighting man of the time (except Galahad) who could conceivably have been able to beat Lancelot in a fair passage of arms (except during the spiritual adventures of the Grail). Tristan sounds rather like what later centuries would call “Renaissance man,” and “every estate loved him, where that he went.” But he appears to rarely or ever returned home to see how his own inheritence of Lyonesse was getting along.

When Tristan was about eighteen, he fought and mortally wounded Sir Marhaus in a single combat to free his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, from paying truage to King Anguish of Ireland. Since Marhaus had used a poisoned spear, however, Tristan sickened of his own wounds, until at least, by the advise of a wise woman, Mark sent him into Ireland to be healed. Here, under the name Tramtrist (Tantrist), he met, was healed by, and probably began to fall in love with Isolde (La Beale Isoud), whom he taught to harp. He also seems to have met Palomides for the first time – and not in the friendliest situation – and he developed a friendship with Isolde’s father, Anguish, that survived even Isolde’s mother’s discovery that Tristan was the man who had killed her brother Marhaus. Tirstan and Isolde exchanged rings before he fled Ireland, but, on arriving back in Cornwall, Tristan got his father’s permission to stay in Mark’s court (even though “largely King Meliodas and his queen departed of their lands and goods to Sir Tristram”), where he eventually entered a rivalry with Mark for the love of Sir Segwarides’ wife.

Finally Mark, whose initial love for his nephew had turned to dislike, sent him into Ireland to bring back Isolde to be queen of Cornwall. On the return voyage, Tristan and Isolde accidentally shared a love potion meant for Isolde and Mark. Eventually banished from Cornwall for ten years, Tristan went to Logres, where he fought at the Castle of Maidens tournament and was imprisoned for a time, along with Palomides and Dinadan, by one Sir Darras (Damas). On his release, he chanced to visit a castle of Morgan le Fay’s. She gave him a shield depicting Arthur, Guenevere, “and a knight who holdeth them both in bondage,” refused to tell him that knight’s name, and made him promise to bear the shield at the tournament at the Castle of the Hard Rock. Her lover, Sir Hemison, jealous of her attentions to Tristan, pursued the departing champion of Cornwall and was killed.

Tristan distinguishing himself at the Hard Rock tournament, smiting down Arthur himself in defense of Morgan’s shield. At the tournament, Tristan rode by the stronghold of Breuse Sans Pitie in time to save Palomides from Breuse and his men. Tristan and Palomides separated after setting a day to meet again and settle their old rivalry in a meadow near Camelot. Palomides missed the appointment, but Lancelot happened to ride by Lancelor and Colombe’s tomb, clad all in white and bearing a covered shield; Tristan mistook Lancelot for Palomides, and the two greatest knight and “best lovers” of their generation battled each other as Merlin had prophesied years before that they would beside that tomb. The bout eneded in a draw, each champion surrendering to the other on learning his identity, and Lancelot brought Tristan to court, where he was installed as a member of the Round Table, getting Sir Marhaus’ old chair.

Tristan is often depicted with a shield featuring a black hound or a boar’s head. These symbols represent his strength, courage, and hunting prowess. It can also have imagery associated with love, music, or the sea.

Notable new elements include his friendship with knights such as Lancelot, Dinadan, and Lamorat, his appointment to the Round Table, his love-hate relationship with Sir Palamedes (who also loved Isolde), his adventures at the Castle of Tears, his period of insanity (caused by his false belief that Kahedins and Isolde were having an affair), and his affair with the wife of Sir Seguarades. The most notable variation from the original legend involves his death which, in most manuscripts of the Prose Tristan, occurs at the hands of King Mark, who has been given a poisoned lance by Morgan le Fay. (Morgan hated Tristan because Tristan had killed Huneson, Morgan’s lover.)

The Prose Tristan influenced a number of Italian works, including a several cantares:

  • Tristano Riccardiano | Late thirteenth century
  • Tristano Panciaticchiano | Early fourteenth century
  • Tristano Veneto | Fourteenth century
  • La Tavola Ritonda | Early fourteenth century
  • I Due Tristani | Mid-sixteenth century.

Adaptions also followed in Slavic (Povest’ o Tryschane, c. 1580), and Icelandic (Saga af Tristram ok Ísodd, fourteenth century, and Tristrams Kvædi, fifteenth century). While relatively faithful to their sources, we find some notable variations among these texts. In the Icelandic Saga, Tristan, the son of Kalegras and Blenzibly, becomes the king of Spain, and in the Italian I Due Tristani, Tristan and Isolde have two children named Tristan the Younger and Isolde. In the fifteenth century French Ysaïe le Triste, his son is called Ysaie.

The “Tristan who never laughed” listed by Chrétien de Troyes among Arthur’s knights is possibly identical with the famous Tristan, whose story Chrétien knew without, apparently, approving of its lovers.

Sir Tristram’s Family and Retainers

King Meliodas of Lyonesse

Queen Elizabeth/Elyabel

Uncle (maternal)
King Mark of Cornwall

Stepmother’s father


Isoud la Blanche Mains

La Beale Isoud (Isolde of Cornwall)

Early lover
Sir Segwarides’ Wife


Teacher and squire

Brother Ogrins


Knights and Protégés
Fergus, Lambegus, Segwarides and Sentraille de Lushon (Sentrayle of Lushon)

Hebes le Renoumes

King Faramon’s Daughter

See also
Belide | The Legend of King Arthur
Drustwrn Hayarn | The Legend of King Arthur
Giuriando | The Legend of King Arthur
Jemsetir | The Legend of King Arthur
Pro of Iernesetir | The Legend of King Arthur
Tristan’s Leap | The Legend of King Arthur
Tristan Stone | The Legend of King Arthur

Tristan Stone | A monolith in Cornwall, erected 6th century
Chevrefueil | Marie de France, mid to late 12th century
Tristan | Thomas of England, 1170-1175
Tristan | Béroul, late 12th century
Tristrant | Eilhart von Oberge, 1170–1190
Tristan | Gottfried von Strassburg, early 13th century
Tristan als Mönch | Early to mid 13th century
Tristrams Saga ok Ísöndar | 1226
Triads of the Island of Britain (Welsh ”Triads”) | 11th century to 14th century
Prose Tristan | 1230-1240
Breudwyt Rhonabwy | 13th century
Tristano Riccardiano | Late 13th century
Sir Tristrem | c. 1300
Tristano Panciaticchiano | Early 14th century
Saga af Tristram ok Isodd | 14th century
La Tavola Ritonda | 1325–1350
Ysaïe le Triste | Late 14th century or early 15th century
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470
I Due Tristani | 1555
Povest’ o Tryshchane | c. 1580